By Anne-Lise Vray, Juvenile Justice Intern
Another important voice has recently called for states to raise the age of criminal responsibility to align with brain science and youth rehabilitation. In early December, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) passed a resolution that endorses raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to include all 17 year old youth. The resolution now awaits final approval from the ALEC Board of Directors. This is a great step towards ending the practice of youth automatically being tried, sentenced and incarcerated as adults.
ALEC, which bills itself as the US’s “largest nonpartisan, voluntary membership organization of state legislators”, and claims to comprise almost “one quarter of the country’s state legislators and stakeholders from across the policy spectrum”, is well known both for its staunchly conservative principles and for its power in state legislatures. Recognizing that “research has found that 17 year-olds are less likely to recidivate when placed in the juvenile system,” the ALEC resolution pushes for all states to pass legislation to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction, regardless of the nature of the offense. It suggests that the juvenile court step should never be skipped, even if it is eventually decided that a youth should be tried as an adult. It is also worth noticing that the resolution does not separate violent and non-violent young offenders, but applies to all 17 year-olds. This is significant, as some state legislation has sought to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction for non-violent offenders or misdemeanants only, leaving behind a large group of young people just as open and capable of rehabilitation.
Considering ALEC’s impact among state lawmakers, this resolution could have great repercussions for tens of thousands of youth, for whom the practice of being tried, sentenced and incarcerated as adults has devastating consequences. Youth housed in adult jails are more likely to commit suicide, to be sexually and physically assaulted and to be placed in solitary confinement, which is considered torture in most places across the world. Youth who are sentenced as adults have also been found to be more likely to recidivate, as the adult system is focused on punishment, and not rehabilitation. In addition to that, youth sentenced as adults will carry their criminal record their whole life, thus diminishing their chances to find jobs, access decent housing, obtain student loans and go to college, join the military, or vote.
There are only 9 states left in the United States who set the age of criminal responsibility below the age of 18, resisting to the wave of change that has been taking place for the past several years to end this practice that does much more harm than good. In North Carolina and New York, all 16-year-old youth are automatically tried as adults. In Georgia, Michigan, Missouri, Louisiana, South Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin, 17 year-old youth are all tried as adults. Hopefully the initiative taken by an organization as powerful as ALEC, with strong credibility among conservatives, will convince these states to side with the other 41 states that have already chosen to follow scientific evidence and data to change their legislation, and hence create a better future for youth as well as a safer society.